Book Review – The Secret History (Donna Tartt)


Death is the mother of beauty.
Death is the mother of beauty.

Whenever you pick up a critically acclaimed book, you’re always sceptical whether it’d be yet another pretentious piece of work. Thankfully this wasn’t!

I for one get excited rather than be put off by a thick book and was glad to discover that the book didn’t use it’s run time to bore the daylights out of me. But that being said, there certainly are parts that feel a little stretched and could’ve been done without, though Donna Tartt makes up for it by introducing an interesting piece of storyline every now and then that pulls you in again.

The Secret History is an engaging book to say the least. It tells the story of an elusive group of friends in college and makes us privy to their group dynamics. We see a façade that’s enchanting but mysterious; with you always wanting to turn the page to get a glimpse beyond it. Narrated by the protagonist Richard Papen, right in the beginning the reader is made aware of the identity of the murder victim as well as the perpetrators of the act, thereby making this novel more of a ‘whydunit’ than a ‘whodunit’.  What follows is an interesting set of events that make you feel like a part of the Hampden college campus life as well as each of the characters’ lives. So much so that once you get through with the book, it takes a tiny while to come to terms with the fact that it has indeed ended.

Donna Tartt beautifully narrates the story by employing wonderful words and quotes in a variety of languages like English, Greek, Latin and French. Certainly a good read for a book aficionado.

Here are a few memorable quotes from the book:

  • The mind is its own place and in itself can make a heaven of hell. ~ Milton
  • “Why does that obstinate little voice in our heads torment us so? Could it be because it reminds us that we are alive, of our mortality, of our individual souls – which after all, we are too afraid to surrender but yet make us feel more miserable than any other thing? But isn’t it also pain that often makes us more aware of self? It is a terrible thing to learn as a child that one is a being separate from all the world, that no one and no other thing hurts along with one’s burned tongues and skinned knees, that one’s aches and pains are all one’s own. Even more terrible, as we grow older, to learn that no person, no matter how beloved, can ever truly understand us. Our own selves make us most unhappy, and that’s why we’re so anxious to lose them, don’t you think?”
  • The Erinyes turned up the volume of the inner monologue, magnified qualities already present to great excess, made people so much themselves that they couldn’t stand it.
  • The least of us know that love is a cruel and terrible master. ~ Sophocles
  • Objects such as corpses, painful to view in themselves, can become delightful to contemplate in a work of art. ~Aristotle
  • Genuine beauty is always quite alarming.
  • Death is the mother of beauty.
  • It’s a temptation for any intelligent person to try to murder the primitive, emotive, appetitive self. But that’s a mistake. Because it is dangerous to ignore the existence of the irrational. The more cultivated a person is, the more intelligent, the more repressed.
  • To be absolutely free! One is quite capable, of course, of working out these destructive passions in more vulgar and less efficient ways. But how glorious to release them in a single burst! To sing, to scream, to dance barefoot in the woods in the dead of night, with no more awareness of mortality than an animal! These are powerful mysteries. The bellowing of bulls. Springs of hiney bubbling from the ground. If we are strong enough in our souls we can rip away the veil and look that naked, terrible beauty right in the face; let God consume us, devour us, unstrung our bones. Then spit us out reborn.
  • Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it.
  • But of course I didn’t see this crucial moment then for what it was; I suppose we never do.
  • Men have friends, women have relatives, and animals have their own kind. ~Greek axiom.
  • I suppose that when anyone accustomed to working with the mind I faced with a straightforward action, there’s a tendency to embellish, to make it overly clever.
  • What is unthinkable is undoable.
  • Some things are too terrible to grasp at once. Other things – naked, sputtering, indelible in their horror – are too terrible to even grasp at all. It is only later, in solitude, in memory, that the realization dawns: when the ashes are cold; when the mourners have departed; when one looks around and finds oneself – quite to one’s surprise – in an entirely different world.
  • Any action, in the fullness of time, sinks to nothingness.
  • It does not do to be frightened of things about which you know nothing.
  • There is nothing wrong with the love of beauty. But beauty – unless she is wed to something more meaningful – is always superficial.
  • Psychology is only another word for what the ancients called fate.
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7 thoughts on “Book Review – The Secret History (Donna Tartt)

  1. I have read this book too. I felt it was beautifully written and interesting. I was jealous of their education and where they were educated, but I was not jealous of how they went off the deep end. It reminded me a lot of what it must have been like for those in the “in crowd.” You might like the book The Possession by A. S. Byatt since you also like and write poetry.

    1. It sure was a well written book and like you mentioned, gave an accurate description of what it was like for those in the “in” crowd. Will surely try to get my hands on the title you mentioned.
      P.S. – I’ve heard Donna Tartt’s third instalment is even better than this one.

  2. I once spotted this book at a pavement book seller at Flora Fountain. Didn’t buy it then because it was a pirated copy. After seeing this beautiful cover page here, I am inspired to look for it now. And, I love your Quote choices. 🙂

    1. Thanks Sharayu! This book is a good read. In fact the author Donna Tartt’s recent book has got pretty rave reviews. How about reading that and reviewing it on your blog? 🙂

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